Marry in haste, repent at leisure….
Assigned convicts in Port Phillip might only have had to attend one muster every New Year’s Day, but they were still convicts. This was reinforced by the regulations involving marriage.
THE CONVICT SYSTEM — To prevent bigamy, and also to secure the government against being burdened with the support of the families of convicts, it has long been a standing ordinance of the government that no convict shall be married without leave first had and obtained from the Governor, and any evasion of this law is punishable as a misdemeanor. On Thursday last, a convict named William Beresford, who is assigned to Mr. W. H. Dutton, one of the largest importers of this detestable species of labour, was brought before the Melbourne bench, charged with offending against this law by marrying one Mary Hall, without the sanction of the Governor. The prisoner, it appeared, was married in February last, by the Rev. Mr. Forbes, of the Scots Church, to whom he represented himself as a free immigrant by the Thomas Laurie. The prisoner admitted his guilt, but alleged he had the consent of his master, who had advised him should any questions be asked, to pass himself off as a free man. Mr. Dutton when examined, admitted that he had given his consent to the marriage, but he denied altogether having advised the prisoner to deceive the clergyman. Mr. Simpson, who was on the bench, expressed in strong terms his disapprobation of the conduct of Mr. Dutton, who, as a magistrate, and for many years an assignee of convict labour, could not be ignorant of the enormity of the offence of which the prisoner was guilty. Beresford was informed that his marriage was a nullity, and sentenced to expatiate his offence by working for six months in irons. During the examination it transpired that on a previous occasion Mr. Dutton had given his assent to the marriage of another of his assigned servants named Spicer, but that worthy having been insolent to the clergyman who was to have united him to his ‘cara sposa’, the ceremony did not take place. The bench directed Mr. Dutton to bring Spicer before them forthwith that he might be dealt with also. Mr. Dutton’s conduct in this affair is altogether so inexcusable that we think the bench scarcely did their duty in failing to deprive him of the whole of his assigned servants. — Ed. P. P. P. [Port Phillip Patriot, 11/4/42]
It was no doubt to warn young women about the dangers of hastily and ill-advised marriages to convicts-under-cover that the Port Phillip Gazette issued this warning on 20 April, directed particularly to female immigrants, new to the colony:
CAUTION TO FEMALE IMMIGRANTS.— The facilities for concealment which the free state of society in this district holds out to prisoners is often an inducement to runaway convicts to settle under the guise of emacipated or originally free characters. Bolters from Van Diemen’s Land and Sydney make their way to Port Phillip, and seduced by the means of earning an independence, are so incautious as to take up with some pursuit in towns or their vicinity, where contact with the police is certain to lead sooner or later to their detection. In some instances these men have the folly to marry, and thus entail misery and disgrace upon the unfortunate women with whom they become connected. Examples have come within our knowledge in which a “Bolter” at the time of his re-capture was to all appearance in the virtuous enjoyment of a livelihood industriously acquired and pursued. In such cases the question whether Government should not let them remain undisturbed so long as they continue good and useful members of society, has been sometimes raised, but so dangerous might the precedent prove, to the control of the convict population of neighbouring colonies that severity becomes unavoidable. Where free women have had the misfortune to be deceived into linking their fate with runaway convicts, the hardship of their position is extremely distressing, and should be a caution to them to avoid hasty marriages, and particularly with men, who, acknowledging that they have been prisoners are unable to produce their certificates of freedom. We have been led into these remarks by learning that two men are now in custody at the Eastern watch-house, one suspected to be a “bolter” from Van Die-men’s Land, the other a runaway convict from Sydney, both are married, and the unfortunate women are in great tribulation on account of the arrest of their husbands. If the suspicion be verified, the marriages are illegal, the children illegitimate, and any property acquired by their joint industry becomes forfeited to the crown. The women will be cast adrift under the stigma of having formed bad connections, and their fortunes; in all probability, will be for the future under a cloud. It is not without reason, then, that female immigrants should be careful of using the facilities which the state of society holds out to an early marriage. [PPG 20/4/42]
Bit rough on the women to seize all their property, I wonder how often the law was enforced.
Sure is. Although until the Married Womens Property Act was passed (in UK and Victoria in 1870, and in NSW in 1879) women had no separate legal identity from their husbands, whether they were convicts or not. There’s an interesting article about the Married Womens Property Act here: http://www.cmalegal.com.au/blog/two-small-steps-for-women-but-one-giant-leap-for-womankind
Thanks, that was interesting. Sounds like it should be the plot of a Georgette Heyer novel, the wicked woman marrying to extinguish her debts.
Yes- I thought of the novelistic potential too
Shocking on many levels. Punish, punish and then for good measure punish again. It would be interesting to know what became of the wives
Yes- the Port Phillip Patriot article on 11 April didn’t actually report the case in the Court Reports, and the wife isn’t mentioned at all. I must keep my eyes open and see if there’s any other similar cases. Or worse still, if the wife re-emerges later in a court case or coroner’s case of her own.